Debbie Greenwell was the head cheerleading coach at the University of Alabama for more than 24 years, until, she alleges, she was terminated from her position in a dramatic fashion in response to her advocacy for equal treatment for her student-athletes. She has recently filed a lawsuit in federal court, challenging the university’s conduct as discrimination and retaliation in violation of the Equal Pay Act and Title IX.
Though Greenwell’s team was not a varsity sport, it was part of the athletic department. Greenwell was hired by and answered to the athletic director. She ran very lucrative cheerleading camps that made cheerleading the second most-profitable athletic department enterprise, after football. In 2008, her cheerleading camp netted $400,000 — money that all went in to the athletic department general fund. Greenwell brought other perks and prestige to Alabama athletics as well, yet, she argues, the athletic department exploited her by refusing to pay her commensurately to other coaches. Apparently, the University justified paying Greenwell less than other coaches on the grounds that cheerleading program was not an NCAA sport with varsity competition. But Greenwell argues — validly, in my opinion — that for purposes of determining pay equity, what matters is that her responsibilities of running camps and the cheerleading squad required effort equal if not greater to that of other coaches. Additionally, U of A held Greenwell out as one of their “coaches” when it suited them, to associate the institution with her prestige.
However, Greenwell’s complaint is light on a couple of details that will determine the validity of charges against the university. In particular, there are no details about how Greenwell’s salaries actually compared to those of male coaches. Also, it’s not clear exactly on what basis Greenwell alleges the required nexus between the issue of her salary disparity and the fact of her termination. The complaint states that she advocated for a higher salary once in 2003, and that another time in 2006, she and students complained about the inequitable lack of academic and other support for cheerleaders compared to other student athletes. Typically, retaliation cases succeed when the plaintiff engaged in protected conduct much closer in time to the employer’s retaliatory conduct (Greenwell was terminated in 2009). We’ll have to wait and see whether such additional factual allegations are forthcoming, or whether their omission is enough to warrant dismissal of her case.